It's the summer and usually a good time for me to relax a bit. Everyone is off on holiday and so I get far fewer calls from customers meaning that I have some much needed 'spare' time to work on my businesses. It's an ideal time to think of new ideas, work on things to improve my work life e.g. efficiencies and generally slow down before I go away on my own holiday - there's no point working myself into the ground before my trip and then spend the first few days exhausted and rather than enjoying myself, I just spend it catching up on sleep!
With that in mind, I began preparing for my holiday around two months ago. I put a big note on my office whiteboard saying 'No Marketing!' in large letters. Why? The problem with me is that I like to be busy and when I find myself with a bit of free time, I tend to work on marketing projects to bring in more customers. The problem with new customers is that they require a lot of work upfront but then generally the work tapers off but they still pay me for various services. The most obvious example of this from my web site company. When I design a new web site for someone, there is a lot of work over the first three weeks but as the web site goes live, the changes, calls and e-mails generally stop for 12 months and then the next time I hear from them is when they pay their annual hosting invoice.
That's why I stopped marketing back in May. I didn't want to actively pursue any new customers because that would make me really busy for the weeks leading up to my holiday. This would mean I would be exhausted before I left and with the possibility that some projects may overrun and I would end up working whilst I was away - something I was absolutely not prepared to do. Our youngest son was born 18 months ago and this is the first holiday we've had in two years - I wasn't going to waste it with work. I have a lot of sleep to catch up on!
Why I don't need to actively market my businesses
'What a great position to be in' I hear you cry, along with 'not possible!'. However it is true.
When I started my first business, I would use SEO to find local customers. I would also go to business breakfast meetings, with other small business owners, to meet people who may need a new web site. I then used e-mail marketing to reach customers further afield. Six years in, now that the hard work has been done, I don't actively market any more and still have a steady stream of customers - even if I don't want them right before my holiday!
Search engine optimisation
Start Googling 'search engine optimisation' or 'SEO' and you can easily spend the next 10 lifetimes reading tips on how to move your site up the Google Search rankings. The problem with a lot of the advice is that it's regurgitated, contradictory or out-of-date. That said, if you can do it right you can use your business web site to bring in a steady stream of customers.
Over the last six years, I have gradually built up to 10 different businesses. Some are similar but with variations, for example I have six web site design businesses. Each has its own web site, phone number etc. i.e. none of my customers know about the other businesses because there is no relation to them, publicly at least. They vary in that they target different geographical locations and therefore each one brings in 'local' business. This is great because whilst it may mean that nobody in Kent is looking for a new web site, my business in Surrey may be pulling in new customers.
SEO is not a quick fix and getting to the top of Google is no guarantee of finding paying customers on its own. The advantage is that by having different sites, all advertising the same services but in different areas, you do not need to rank number one in Google for your service. Anyone looking for a new web site will look at at least three different companies so as long as you are in the top five results on the first page of Google, customers will find you. Having multiple sites also allows you to target your services at different geographical areas. For example, I have two sites that advertise web site design and SEO services that are 'based' in two towns that are five miles apart from each other. Geographically they are very close but one advertises the same services but at a premium price because that town generally attracts wealthier residents.
Although initially each site took time to create and develop so that it sits nice and high in the search engine rankings, now that they are in place I receive a steady drip-drip-drip of customers from them for essentially no on-going work or cost.
This is my go to marketing strategy for any new business. I can easily reach thousands of people in a few days to test the business and see whether I get anyone biting. Writing a good e-mail takes time and should not be rushed. I've written some tips for e-mail marketing in the past so I won't repeat myself here. This is what I stopped doing back in May because I tend to find that it's a slow burner. You can send out 1,000 e-mails in a week but not hear back from anyone for weeks, sometimes months.
I've had customers get in touch with me years after me sending them an e-mail because they liked what I had written, liked the service and just held on to the message until the time was right for them.
I have had the most success with marketing e-mails when I'm selling a service, such as web site design, however I have used it in the past to reach retail customers. When I launched an online store selling vaping products, I used a combination of SEO (a slow but excellent long-term approach to finding customers) and e-mail marketing. The purpose of the e-mail marketing was to find customers quickly and test the business model. It did work and I found a few repeat customers from using this method so it's worth considering, even for some retail businesses.
For me, e-mail marketing is great for testing a new venture or for targeting specific contacts. For example, if I come across a web site design agency that are treating their customers terribly with poor customer service or extortionate prices, I'll do my best to build up a database of their customers and send a marketing e-mail to them, trying to tempt them away to a service that is much better and cheaper.
Referrals / repeat customers
With years' of experience and hundreds of customers, my business has started to snowball. One happy customer refers them to a friend, they buy something from you and may refer you on to someone else. Some customers will also come back again themselves for more work. I've just had one customer come back for an additional web site for a new business that he is starting - he was so happy with the first one, he has come to me to help him launch his new venture.
This isn't always the case. Some customers will go elsewhere just because they've met someone locally and hit it off. For my online shops, there's not much I can do to improve customer loyalty - most people are just searching for the cheapest price so unless I can meet or beat other people's prices, understandably customers will go elsewhere - it's the exact same product, why wouldn't you save yourself a bit of money?
Repeat customers are great and there are things you can do to incentivise them to buy from you again with discounts for existing customers or perhaps up-selling additional services. I don't do this. I never send our marketing e-mails to existing customers but I do make sure I spend time earning their trust and providing them with exactly the service that they want.
What I don't do
Facebook, Twitter et al.
Like everyone else, I have tried various other methods of marketing. I tried social media marketing by creating the obligatory Facebook and Twitter accounts but they were a complete waste of time. I didn't get a single enquiry through my efforts, let alone a sale. I even tried paying a SMM (social media marketing) 'expect' - someone who does it for a living - and that didn't generate any results either. Perhaps I was unlucky, perhaps I didn't find the right 'expert' but to me, the whole process was a complete waste of time and money.
We get the odd customer asking us to do their SMM for them but I always decline and suggest other means of promoting their business. I always tell them that for you to send a tweet on Twitter and for it to appear in someone's timeline at the exact moment that they are thinking about buying a new x (enter whatever product or service you are selling here) then you would have to be extremely lucky.
I think, certainly for small businesses, the cost / benefit ratio for SMM is not in your favour. You can spend hours each week posting great, engaging and funny content BUT is that the best use of your time considering there's little chance of you getting any paying customers for it? You could, if you are determined to go down the SMM route, pay someone else to do it for you but this creates its own issues. Firstly, it's money going out of the door when really you should be keeping your outgoings to the bear minimum.
The other problem is that people outside of your business will never have the same understanding and day-to-day experiences that you have and therefore the content they create will never have the same personal touch. If you're not careful, you will end up posting lots of inauthentic, generic content which people will see right through.
Google Ads and Facebook Ads
I have used these services to promote some of my clients' businesses but only in specific cases and only when they have the marketing budget to back it up. It is very easy to blow through hundreds of pounds in days if these adverts are not configured correctly. Cost per click and daily budgets are a must otherwise you will spend a lot of money and gain zero customers from it.
I've tried using this method of advertising only once for my own businesses. I tried creating adverts for my hosting company but as these businesses are so easy to set up, there are literally thousands of people all trying to attract the same customers. Consequently each click on an advert would cost around £20. That's fine for some of the bigger hosting companies who can afford the marketing budget and will up-sell lots of other products to the customers and recoup their money but I'm extremely cautious over my business expenses and so didn't want to risk playing that game in the long run.
My hosting company customers are now mostly obtained through strategic blog posts that focus on specific issues that customers may face. A common issue is hosting companies refusing to release domain names so that customers cannot update their settings and move to a different provider. I've created a few blog posts that focus on this issue and offer solutions. Due to this, customers find us, get in touch and of course are more than happy to move to a company which actively helps their customers and gets them out of a sticky situation.
What I am going to try next
Although I'm not marketing at the moment, I am interested in growing the hosting business. It's a relatively easy way to make money whilst not doing a lot for it - finding customers is the difficult bit but once they are signed up, they will likely stay a customer for many years.
I'm thinking about offering micro-experiences to existing customers which will then, hopefully, be publicised by those same customers and provide me with a relatively cheap marketing option. So, what are micro-experiences?
Well instead of paying Google £20 each time one person clicks on my advert and visits my site, I thought I could take that same marketing budget and send a gift to one of my existing customers each month. As I will already know their postal address, I can use Google Maps to find a shop close to them that accepts gift cards. Perhaps it has come up in conversation that they like coffee so I can send them a Starbucks gift card in the post with a little 'thank you for choosing our business and supporting us' note. It could be that after chatting during a support call, I've discovered that they are really busy and haven't been out for a while so I could find a voucher for a local restaurant or even send them a mini hamper in the post.
My thinking is that these little gifts will cost a lot less than using online adverts but will mean so much more. We're not offering incentives to start using our services over someone else’s - sign up now and get 20% off - which just devalue your service and annoy existing, full paying customers. We're rewarding loyal customers and giving them an incentive to talk about us to their friends with the intention of getting more business from referrals.
I haven't tried it yet but when I do, I will let you know how I got on.